Between stimulus and response


In this excerpt from an interview done in August 2016, DR. JAMES DOTY speaks to JOHN MALKIN about the science of meditation, the evolutionary advantage of compassion, aspects of human behavior that relate to compassion and collective social issues, and his cherished memories of the remarkable woman who gave him a helping hand up when he was a boy.

“It’s only when we focus on healing the wounds of the heart
that there’s ever going to be peace in the world.
All the science and technology are not going to do that.”
Dr. James Doty

Q: Tell us about the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) that you founded at Stanford University. Sometimes people think compassion is internal, vague and hard to describe, and that exploring compassion is a soft science. How are you studying compassion and altruism and what are you finding?

JD: There’s been a lot of interest in how the brain responds or reacts to meditation and this research has been going on for the last three decades, initially led by Rick Hanson. But what is interesting to me, and remains interesting, is that what is at the core of many of these meditative practices is compassion: compassion for yourself certainly, and compassion for others.

As I looked at this area, I realized that our survival is related to nurturing and caring for our offspring. And in the human species this involves caring not only for our offspring but for others as well. As a result of this requirement – that our offspring are nurtured for a decade and a half or more after birth, unlike other mammals that just run off into the forest after birth – our offspring require us to essentially teach them, while they mirror our behaviors, so that they will survive. Yet the cost of that to our species – to the parents or the mother – is huge with regard to time, resources and energy. Without that nurturing, caring and bonding, our offspring don’t survive. As a result, deeply ingrained or hardwired into our brains is a reward system based on us caring for others, primarily our offspring of our own species, but also caring for all beings. What happens is that the areas associated with reward increase their metabolism when we actually care for others. This is a deeply ingrained part of who we are, and what we are, as a species. As we evolved from the nuclear family in a hostile environment to hunter-gatherer tribes in a hostile environment, in groups of ten to fifty, this requirement that we alleviate suffering or care for and nurture others was even more important. Because if an individual in our tribe or our group was suffering, it meant that potentially they could not do their job. If they did not do their job it could put the whole group at risk. So our ability to read emotional states, micro facial expressions, body language, and even interpret smells, was critically important as we evolved as a species. Then when we domesticated animals and plants, this led to us having more time. But it’s interesting if you look at how society and religion have functioned; at the core is this absolute requirement for cooperation, caring and nurturing others. In fact it has been shown through a variety of studies that short-term ruthlessness cannot benefit a species. For a species to survive long-term requires the cooperation of the individuals in the group. Certainly this is central to the survival of the human species.

What we know is that all of us are born
with a certain genetic potential
for those types of behaviors,
but most of us don’t maximize or
potentiate them with intention,
because we don’t know how or
we don’t appreciate how beneficial they can be.

In regard to the creation of the Center at Stanford, I was at a point in my life where I started thinking about these things. As a result, from that research and interest, I realized that understanding how the brain responds to these situations, and how compassion affects our physiology, is really critically important. As it turned out, there were a few people exploring this area. I then gathered an informal group of scientists at Stanford and we began some preliminary studies looking at some of these issues. Then it struck me that it would be wonderful to have the Dalai Lama come to Stanford to speak. That was in 2007 and as a result I ended up having a meeting with His Holiness. At the end of our conversation, the Dalai Lama agreed to come to Stanford and was so impressed with the work that he wanted to make a personal donation. It was the largest donation he had ever given to a non-Tibetan cause at that time. That was incredibly overwhelming and moving, and it set the stage for others to make donations to this work and ultimately to formally create a Center at Stanford.

Q: It is beautiful how that came about and evolved over time. I suppose some people might say that humans are born either with compassion or not, or that certain groups of people have it or they don’t. I am guessing that you would say that compassion is something that can be cultivated quite systematically. Is that so?

JD: I think that is exactly right, and your previous statement is also absolutely correct. Essentially, we are all born with a set of genes that define our attributes. But, that being said, many of us don’t utilize those attributes or maximally cultivate them. What I mean, as an example, is that there may be an individual who has significant genetic potential to be a long distance runner, but if he is never put into a situation to run long distances then that will never manifest. Frankly, the same is true with compassion and, in fact, happiness. What we know is that all of us are born with a certain genetic potential for those types of behaviors, but most of us don’t maximize or potentiate them with intention, because we don’t know how or we don’t appreciate how beneficial they can be.

The other interesting aspect of gene expression is that we also know there are individuals, for example sociopaths, who are born with a disconnection in their brain that limits their ability to understand the emotional states of others. There are individuals who have gene receptors that limit their ability to respond to those transmitters associated with nurturing and caring, like oxytocin. This leads to individuals not responding the same way to a particular situation: a “normal” person would respond empathically whereas this person would not do so, or not at the same level. Genes do play a part but we also know that we can cultivate or maximize our potential for compassion by certain practices.


Q: Tell me about the experience you had as a kid growing up with a father who drank a lot, where there was violence in the home; somewhat familiar territory for a lot of people growing up in America. And when you were in the 8th grade you happen to meet this woman named Ruth at a magic shop and she taught you meditation and concentration techniques.

JD: I grew up in poverty, my father was an alcoholic, and my mother had had a stroke and was partially paralyzed, chronically depressed and had attempted suicide multiple times. Neither parent had gone to college. We were on public assistance and this is not the environment for a child that is typically associated with success.

Although I was intelligent and to some degree self-aware, that actually made the situation worse. I had the insight that I essentially had no ability to change the situation, no resources and no access to knowledge. I had a sense of despair and hopelessness. I was unhappy and angry. I was angry at my situation and at my parents.

So one day at the age of twelve I walked into a magic shop and there was a woman behind the counter. She was an Earth Mother type. I asked her about some of the things in the magic shop and she laughed and brought her head up to look at me, because she was reading a paperback at the time. She explained to me that she knew nothing about the magic in the store. She said it was her son’s store and she was simply sitting there while he ran an errand.

She was the kind of person we meet rarely, whose presence radiates goodness and kindness. Their smile is radiant and they embrace you and you feel calm and comfortable in their presence. She immediately sensed that I was troubled, and she paid attention to me and asked me some questions, which was unusual for a child in my position.

At the end of fifteen or twenty minutes of conversation, where she queried me about my background and interests and hopes and aspirations, she said to me, “I’m here for another six weeks and if you come every day I’ll teach you something that could change your life.” I wish I could tell you that I had some incredible insight that led me to show up, but the fact of the matter is that I had nothing else to do and she’d given me some cookies during our conversation. So I showed up.

In the course of that interaction it was apparent retrospectively that this woman had significant knowledge of Eastern philosophical practices. She understood from her own experience that you can change your own brain. Although it wasn’t named at the time, what she was talking about was neuroplasticity.

So for the next six weeks, we spent an hour or two together every day, and she taught me what I describe as “Ruth’s Tricks: one through four.”

The first trick is to relax the body.

Many of us carry around the emotions that we have in our muscles and that this distracts us from being attentive. The first thing she taught me was this concept of relaxing the body and learning attention and focus. She did this in ways that we now know as the typical practices associated with Buddhism or meditation or mindfulness. To really be a success, one has to be able to attend and focus and respond to emotional states and have insight into them.

The second trick is to tame the mind.

This is understanding the reality that there is a dialogue going on in one’s head that we often think represents us or is us, but in fact it’s simply a dialogue that is made up of all the words, feelings and baggage that we collect growing up. And for many of us this is negative. It is a dialogue that says you’re not good enough, smart enough, or talented enough to do x, y or z. It is self-limiting.

She made me realize this reality and understand that this dialogue – she used the analogy of a radio station – was like being tuned to a particular radio station that wasn’t particularly helpful. She taught me the practice of being able to notice those words and let the words flow by without emotionally responding.

What many of us forget is that when we hear these words or have this type of internal dialogue, it affects our peripheral physiology, often times in a very negative way by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and all the deleterious effects of the low-level stress hormones. Then the mind shuts off to possibilities. I learned to sit with this without having that emotional response. And ultimately she taught me to actually change the dialogue so that it was not one of criticality but one of self-compassion and affirmation. In doing so, it changed how I saw the world. What I thought were impairments to my ability to succeed, or limitations of my possibilities, were suddenly removed. And that was absolutely critical.


The third trick is to open your heart.

Frankly, at that age, I did not take it to heart as much as I should have. And understanding that the greatest gift we can give is not only being kind to ourselves, but being of service and kind to others. And to interact with others always with this idea that the mere presence of another is a wonderful thing and everybody has something that you can learn, and everyone can give love.

The fourth trick is to cultivate clarity through visualization techniques and cultivate your intention.

By doing so it allows you to do almost anything. That’s not to say that when you do this practice it is a straight line from point a to point b. To get to where you want to be there may be hills and valleys and detours, but ultimately, by utilizing these techniques, it places within your subconscious this incredibly strong motivation that you are moving in the direction to fulfill that desire. Even without your knowledge. Certainly that’s mitigated by the fact that these should be desires that benefit yourself and others and not work in a negative context.

Those were the four lessons Ruth taught me that allowed me to go from the mindset of limited possibilities to unlimited possibilities.

Q: It’s a beautiful story that moved me a lot.

JD: Engaging in positive mental states, and the cultivation of compassion with intention, changes everything. When I finished my interaction with Ruth after six weeks my personal circumstance had not changed one iota … but everything changed. And the reason everything did change was that I went from having negative emotions associated with my situation to simple acceptance of my situation. I had a different type of mental state. My mental state changed to one of happiness, acceptance and gratitude. I was able to forgive those who had hurt or wronged me. I had no anger towards my father and mother, because I understood that they had their own struggles and were dealing with their own pain.

I say that situations have no power. It is us who give them power. I was able to go back to my situation understanding this, having these insights, and when I changed my mental state and took away the anger, despair and hopelessness then the world changed in how it interacted with me.

What has allowed me to have the success I have had is looking at the world with gratitude, practicing forgiveness, being compassionate to myself and others, recognizing the dignity of every person and practicing equanimity and humility. I understand that my purpose is to be of service to others, to embrace others and to give people unconditional love. That allows me to walk in the word and allows the world to embrace me.

Q: I’m reminded in what you just said about the statement of Viktor Frankl that is something like:between the stimulus and the response there is a space and it’s in that space that we find freedom.

JD: I think that is exactly right and Viktor Frankl is one of my heroes. He had this understanding that between stimulus and response is a pause and it is within this pause that everything occurs. And it is learning how to sit with this pause, and how sitting with that pause, if you have the right intention and you have self-awareness and you have practiced the things that we have spoken about, then your response is completely different.

Between stimulus and response is a pause
and it is within this pause that everything occurs.

And it’s the response to things that changes everything. As an example, often times we are approached by people who are angry or upset about something, and our natural inclination is to give that back to them in the same fashion. Yet if we take a moment to pause and think about the reality, these negative emotions and behaviors have nothing to do with us. They are a response to a set of events that occurred perhaps before the person met with us; a negative interaction with a spouse, some negative information about something they cared about.


When we are able to pause, this decreases our reactive nature and we don’t go into a state of engagement of our sympathetic nervous system. As a result we are able to be much more thoughtful, clear-headed and creative, which leads to a better world. This is really the summation of all that we are talking about, when we talk about war, anger or negative effects on the environment; these are all conditions of the human heart.

Throughout our lives many of us receive wounds of the heart. For most of us these heal quickly, but for some these wounds of the heart are deep. As a result, it is these wounds of the heart that are responsible for negative behaviors. It’s only when we focus on healing the wounds of the heart that there is ever going to be peace in the world. All the science and technology are not going to do that. It is when we go inside of ourselves and practice the things we were discussing, acting with an open heart – those are the only things that can heal these wounds.

Interviewed by JOHN MALKIN
Illustrations by ARATI SHEDDE

Recommended Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *